March 6, 2019 1:05 am
Updated: March 6, 2019 8:45 am

WHL billet program provides home away from home and more

WATCH ABOVE: In Part 2 of our three-part WHL Leaders Off the Ice series, Deb Matejicka takes a look at the hockey league's billet program.

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It was nearly 16 years ago that Val Wisener lost her husband.  A week later, her daughter, Cassandra — a big fan of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels — turned 12.

“A friend of ours talked to one of the Rebels…. and asked him if he would sign something and have it sent over for Cassandra for her birthday just to brighten her up a little bit,” Wisener recalled.

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That Rebel player was current NHL star Dion Phaneuf and he did more than just sign a jersey for the youngster.

“He actually came to the house with it,” said Wisener, “and visited with her for a while.”

It was in that moment, Wisener took note of this special event and all the other things players were doing in the community.

READ MORE: St. Albert hockey player battling PTSD to stay in the game he loves

Not long after that encounter, Wisener decided she would try give back to the team. That’s when she decided to become a billet and open her home to young players who had left their homes to come play in Red Deer in the WHL.

A decade and a half later, Wisener has been “mom” to nearly 20 young players.  Each one, including her current billet son Brandon Hagel, are treated as though they’re her own.

“To have someone that can love you and support you just like your mom can, then it means the world to me,” said Hagel, who moved into Wisener’s home at the beginning of the 2018/2019 season.

“You’re pretty emotional,” said Wisener of watching Hagel and other billet sons play. “The hits you know you take them all, I’m sure, for the boys and when they excel, you just glow because you think that you’re a part of their family.”

READ MORE: ‘His billet brother is definitely his hero’: A day in the life of a Dauphin Kings billet family

WHL commissioner Ron Robison says that feeling of family is exactly what the league’s billet program is all about.

“It provides a home away from home for our players and it gives the assurances to the families, the comfort that they’re going to be taken care of very well,” said Robison.

The Calgary Flames’ Travis Hamonic played in the WHL for Moose Jaw and Brandon. He echoed Robison’s sentiments, adding players face a unique situation in leaving home at such a young age to pursue their hockey dreams.

“At 16, you’re still a kid, you need people looking out for you, you need people that are sitting there with your best interest at heart and trying to help you along the way, right?” Hamonic said.

READ MORE: Humboldt was home away from home for many players involved in fatal crash

Flames teammate Mikael Backlund spent barely half a season with the Kelowna Rockets, but his billet family made such an impact that he still is close with them years later.

“They were so nice to me and it made the situation super easy,” remembered Backlund. “It was great memories and it’s great to still have contact with them.”

For all billet families and billet moms, in particular, the league — in partnership with the Chatters Salon Beautiful Woman program — chooses four billet moms from across Western Canada to be formally recognized at a game in their hometown.

Players are first required to submit nominations as to why their billet moms are deserving. Hagel’s winning nomination of Wisener, in part, read:

“I can’t say enough about Val. She has been a billet for 15 years.

“Since I have been in Red Deer she has been a second mother to me. She does nothing but spoil me and my teammates and would do absolutely anything to make me feel at home.”

“When I say spoiled, I mean waking up to a smoothie by my shoes every morning, is something special. Thanks for everything Val.”

Hagel added: “I walk through the door every day like I’m walking through my parents’ house and that’s something I cherish so much and will for the rest of my life.”

Wisener says she won’t ever forget her billet sons.

“You get attached to these boys. They’re like family and I’m proud of them all.”

WATCH BELOW: In the wake of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy, a pair of Edmonton Oil Kings mothers discuss the integral role billet parents play in the role of young hockey players.

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